Conversational Latin and German

Good day! Hello! Guten tag! Bonjour! I am taking on a new challenge this year. Starting next week I will be helping to home tutor a friend’s son, James, through what would be his Year 6. I have been asked to teach languages with an emphasis on German, that being James’ preference — and how I wish he preferred a Romance language! My friend has stated that she doesn’t much mind what we cover, however, as long as her son basically enjoys it, by which she means that he learns in a friendly, safe environment which is also free from any teaching-to-the-test SAT nonsense.

My intention, then, is to teach languages mainly through the medium of chattering (in German) and doing, making things, playing. Chattering about baking, for example, while doing baking (James loves baking), chattering about music while making music (James is a far more accomplished musician than I am — I am hoping the learning will go both ways here), chattering about family and home while we explore my family home (these are always good conversational topics for language learners and I teach in my home);  I also intend to link these lessons to subjects his other teachers are covering with him. We will then have a plenary session once a week for a half hour in which I am hoping James will have remembered some of what we covered and in due course will start to write some of it down.

My thinking behind this approach is based on the fact that language is generally about oral communication — yes, even in this age of digital, flat screen, silent, magic communication. Spoken language is far, far more ancient than the written word. Did you know that only about half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth exist in a written form? The written forms of language are an entirely artificial construct, often maintaining sounds and even grammatical structures which have been all but completely dropped from their current, spoken forms. Consider, for example, the spellings of words like ‘slaughter’ (from Old English sleaht, slaughter) and ‘benign’ (from Latin, benignus, kind) and the written form ‘Mrs’ which is hardly ever spelt out in full but never pronounced ‘mrs’ — how would you begin to pronounce that anyway? So I am going to spare James the written forms of German until we have built some confidence around the spoken forms.

This approach, I should add, does not come naturally to me, but does have a precedent in my own language learning past. When I started learning French, German and Latin as a 7, 10 and 11 year old respectively, I did so through the medium of song (primary school French) and text books. I liked the text books. They were fine. I was bookish and quiet. When it came to time for oral exams I was weaker than I would have liked — but my reading was ace! My verbs and nouns I could recite! My writing was pretty good. My accent wasn’t bad, but I struggled with the confidence to communicate orally because we had not spent as much time on that aspect of the language as an oral exam or a holiday in France or Germany would require. However, when, as an adult, I decided to take evening classes in modern Welsh, there was no text book for weeks! And when the text book did appear it wasn’t much help in sating my desire to find patterns in paradigms and to make out the breaks in the words, or rather sounds we were saying to each other, because Welsh orthography is wildly different from English — see my point above about languages preserving odd sounds and grammatical structures in their written forms. The fact that the text book wasn’t a great help to me came as a surprise because I had always been used to having text books in classes. However, our wonderful teacher Dilys had obviously done a sound job as after only a few sessions I was at ease showing off my new found language skills with the (one) native Welsh speaker in my local pub. Hurrah! I can’t imagine being able to hold a conversation with anyone after a handful of weeks of language lessons from my early schooling. So much for text books!

Another key reason for this approach, however, is the lack of good looking text books for language learning aimed at primary age students. I found lots of picture books full of nouns, but language is not made purely of nouns.  What I wanted was something like the Minimus Latin books by Barbara Bell and  Helen Forte, in which an adorable little mouse, named Minimus, (mus being the Latin for mouse), has adventures in Latin and grammar is explained in a manageable way for primary aged students (and adults). Such a book does not seem to exist for any modern foreign language (MFL), at least in the book shops in Cambridge and my searches on the magic internet.  Surely this is a huge gap in the market waiting to be exploited (particularly since I have a sneaking suspicion that MFL curriculums are dull as dishwater). If you know of any good MFL books for primary age students, please do comment and put me right.

In the meantime, I look forward to my first lesson and I hope James does too! His blog on his year of homeschooling is www.homeschooljh.wordpress.com should you wish to follow his learnings.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu!

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